Choice Overload: Why Is Less Considered More?

ByNathan Paulus
Reviewed byNick Mishkin

Updated: March 19, 2024

ByNathan Paulus
Reviewed byNick Mishkin

Updated: March 19, 2024

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What Is Choice Overload?

Behavioral finance finds that several factors affect our ability to make sound financial decisions. Although the freedom to choose is good, having too many options may not be as beneficial. Choice overload (also known as over-choice) refers to the unfavorable effect of having too many alternatives.

Having too many options often leads to delayed decision-making and dissatisfaction with the final decision. The modern world floods us with alternatives that cater to different personal preferences, and choice overload is more common than ever.

Choice overload can occur when deciding what to order in your favorite coffee shop or determining the best auto insurance company. Understanding how to deal with it can help you make better financial decisions without being overwhelmed by anxiety or succumbing to herd instinct.


Why Does Choice Overload Happen?

Have you ever had so many options that you felt paralyzed and ended up not choosing anything? That's a common consequence of choice overload, which is failing to make the most rational decision in the face of having too many alternatives. Choice is not a bad thing. But when there are too many choices, the decision-making process can be overwhelming.

Choice overload is less daunting when you have prior knowledge about your options or existing preferences. You're also less likely to experience it when an immediate decision isn't necessary. Unfortunately, we don't always have ample information and limitless time for the choices we must make.

Every decision takes up mental energy, and when we run out, we're more likely not to make one, resulting in delay. Extensive options also lead to higher expectations. We feel disappointed and frustrated when the outcome doesn’t meet these expectations.

Some people want to seek out all possible alternatives, but with nearly limitless options these days, it may create more harm than good. There are also situations wherein we're not clear about what we want. The entire experience becomes overwhelming when you combine it with too many options.


The effects of choice overload may lead to choice paralysis. Either we delay deciding because we've exhausted our mental resources by making earlier decisions, or we abandon the decision-making task entirely, choosing none of the available options. Unfortunately, the choices that take the most energy impact our lives the most — starting a business, getting married or shifting careers.

In situations when we do decide, it lowers the quality of our decisions, leaving us dissatisfied. The mere presence of too many options increases the likelihood of buyer's remorse and anxiety, negatively affecting our overall well-being.

Your financial decisions aren't immune to the effects of choice overload. Commodities aren't the only things with nearly-limitless options — financial products are catching up quickly. Getting overwhelmed by the number of personal loan lenders, insurance providers and retirement plans available is normal.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can apply to your life to combat choice overload. These include having clear long-term goals, researching and narrowing down your options. MoneyGeek's guide explores these methods further.


Predictors of Choice Overload

Choice overload is a phenomenon you're bound to encounter several times in your lifetime. That said, it doesn’t affect every choice you make. Several factors must be present for it to affect your decision-making.

A 2014 study by Northwestern University narrowed it down to four specific elements: how complicated the decision is, how difficult the situation is, how well you understand your preferences and how clear your main objective is.


Examples of Choice Overload

Choice overload is a phenomenon that occurs in various environments. It can happen in mundane situations, such as a run to your local supermarket. You may also experience it when evaluating big-ticket items or retirement plans. Our guide shows three specific situations.

Choice Overload Example: Less Jam, More Money

In 2000, Iyengar & Lepper completed a study involving gourmet jam. They wanted to see whether having more variety would lead to higher sales. To make the determination, they created two different displays. The first display offered 24 types of jam, while the second display only showed six.

The results were surprising. Although the display with more variety attracted more customers, only a few returned to make purchases — 3% to be exact. They had fewer customers when only six types of jam were displayed, but 30% of those customers made purchases. It showed that offering fewer options led to higher revenue.


Choice Overload Example: Scary Supermarket Aisles

A visit to your local supermarket can be stressful and time-consuming. Imagine going shopping for one or two items and walking out of the store over an hour later.

During your shopping trip, you go down one aisle. You find 85 different cracker brands, 95 snacks and 285 kinds of cookies. Something that could have taken two minutes now requires around 20 minutes of your time as you try to determine what brand will satisfy everyone in your household.

Having to deal with too many alternatives can cause anxiety. As a solution, supermarkets can give their customers a better experience if they offer fewer brands.


Choice Overload Example: Increasing 401(k) Participation

There's no ideal age to start preparing for retirement, but you're never too young. Signing up with your employer's 401(k) is an excellent way to begin. Not only does it ensure a nest egg in your golden years, but you can also choose where to invest your funds. Who wouldn't want to participate?

As it turns out, choice overload also affects participation in retirement plans, as Sethi-Iyengar, Huberman and Jiang discovered in their 2004 study.

In this study, it wasn't that people didn't see the value of having a 401(k). They saw the value, but selecting between multiple investment options that could significantly impact their retirement money was overwhelming. They found that with every ten or more fund options, there was a 1.5% to 2% decrease in participation. In comparison, employers that offered less than ten investment options had more participation.


Overcoming Choice Overload

Choice overload may lead to poor financial decisions. It is crucial to learn how to minimize its effects. Fortunately, you can use several strategies to combat it, including having a clear long-term perspective, researching and narrowing down your options. MoneyGeek's guide explores these further.

We've identified the different factors that contribute to choice overload. Logically, taking some of those elements away may bring positive outcomes. For example, the lack of time makes deciding more complex, so giving yourself more time before making a choice may reduce the effects of choice overload.

What makes a situation challenging is evaluating alternatives and coming up with a choice in one sitting. Perhaps a better approach is to spend one day exploring your options, allowing yourself time to compare them without feeling pressured. You can save the actual decision-making for another time.

Information is a powerful tool to reduce the impact of choice overload. Knowing the benefits of each option is one important step in the decision-making process. Understanding your objective is also critical. MoneyGeek's guide provides additional strategies below to help narrow your choices and remedy any feelings of being overwhelmed.


Choice Overload FAQ

Choice overload is a common phenomenon that affects your ability to make decisions in various situations. MoneyGeek’s guide includes commonly asked questions regarding this aspect of behavioral finance to provide you with additional information.

It's the phenomenon when having too many options makes decision-making more difficult. Contrary to the prevailing belief that a wide array of choices brings satisfaction, studies have shown that the contrary is true.

Choice overload typically results in consumers delaying their decisions because they get overwhelmed with the number of possibilities. Sometimes, it leads to decision paralysis, where they don't make any decision in the end.

Yes, it does. Barry Schwartz's book, The Paradox of Choice — Why More is Less, puts people into two categories: maximizers and satisfiers.

Maximizers spend more time and energy comparing various options in search of the best. Although it leads to more informed choices, it takes them longer to decide, making them more likely to feel dissatisfied with their decisions.

Satisfiers compare options, find what's good enough, and don't spend mental and emotional resources worrying about whether there's a better alternative out there. They're less likely to experience choice overload.

Besides decision delay and choice paralysis, choice overload makes you less satisfied with your choices. Even after making a decision, you're more likely to be preoccupied with the possibility of making a different choice. It may even lead to feelings of regret. Both of these affect your mental well-being negatively as they may result in anxiety and depression.

Besides delayed decisions (or no decisions, as the case may be), you may end up going with what you've always chosen. So all the energy you poured over comparing alternatives is wasted. You may also choose what everyone else is choosing because it feels safer. However, what works for others may not be ideal for you.

Not necessarily. Four elements can influence your decision-making experience. These are choice complexity, task difficulty, preference clarity and goal setting. With awareness of your preferences and proper goal setting, you can minimize the effects of choice overload.


Related Content

Personal finance isn't just about creating budgets and understanding various concepts like insurance, loans and mortgages. Managing your finances well also involves understanding how psychological factors such as choice overload affect decision-making. MoneyGeek provides you with additional resources regarding concepts related to behavioral finance.

  • Anchoring Bias: This behavioral finance concept explores how you use the initial information you receive to make financial decisions.
  • Rational Choice Theory: Explore this school of thought that believes people make decisions based on analytical thinking. Individuals weigh the pros and cons of options and identify which brings them closer to their objectives.
  • Mental Accounting: Learn about Mental Accounting bias and how it can lead to poor financial decisions. MoneyGeek explores the different approaches to overcoming bias.
  • 6 Reasons That Influence You Buying Car Insurance: Finding the best car insurance policy for your needs involves gathering and comparing essential information. In your search, be aware that several mental biases may affect your final choice.
  • How Sleep Impacts Your Career and Finances: The body needs time to rest and recharge. Lack of quality sleep doesn’t just affect you physically — it also affects your mental resources, which may inadvertently impact career and financial decisions.

About Nathan Paulus

Nathan Paulus headshot

Nathan Paulus is the Head of Content Marketing at MoneyGeek, with nearly 10 years of experience researching and creating content related to personal finance and financial literacy.

Paulus has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He enjoys helping people from all walks of life build stronger financial foundations.